TRANSCRIPT: Haben Girma speaking at Pro Bono Net's 20th Anniversary event

HABEN GIRMA: Good afternoon!

AUDIENCE: Good afternoon!

HABEN: Thank you for welcoming me here. As you heard, I'm deaf-blind, I have limited vision and hearing. Connecting with people is really important to me. There's a lot of diversity in the deaf-blind community and we use all different kinds of communication tools.

All of us face the choice to accept unfairness or advocate for justice. As the daughter of refugees, a black woman, disabled, lots of stories say "my life doesn't matter." I choose to resist those stories. The dominant story is that people with disabilities are a burden on society and have nothing to contribute.

That's ableism. I resist this story. I define disability as an opportunity for innovation. If you can't do something one way, come up with another way so that we can access information, access legal services and we can build the justice based on our community.

People with disabilities have been developing solutions all throughout history.  These are hidden stories so very few people know about them. If we can get these stories out there and educate the communities, then we can shift the dominant story from one of pity, to one of talent and innovation.

I entered Harvard Law in 2010. Harvard told me we've never had a deaf-blind student before. I told Harvard I've never been to Harvard Law School before.

(audience laughter)

We didn't know what all the solutions would be, but we were committed to try, figure it out. If one thing didn't work, try new accommodation. It's an interactive process to reach solutions.

When I was growing up, I was taken out of a lot of physical education programs because people assumed I wouldn't be able to participate. I reached out to surf schools in California. Then I found a school that said, we've never heard of a deaf blind surfer, but let's try. Let's find a way.

So we had a lesson. And in this lesson, we surfed side by side on our own boards. That gave me the opportunity to practice standing up, balancing as I rode the wave, and the instructor beside me was able to help steer around other surfers and sharks.

(audience laughter)

Anything can be made accessible. There are people in our community that we don't even try to include in our efforts to increase access because we make assumptions about what people can and can't do.

Let's strive to make everything accessible.